Learning, Memory and the Health Sciences

The Rule of 5 and Long-Term Memory

Our guest blogger, Elizabeth, wrote this when she was a first-year medical student. Elizabeth talks about the importance of repetition (she calls it the “Rule of 5”) to understand information and store it in long-term memory.

Highlighter? Check. Notebook? Check. Laptop? Check.

As I went over my first-day-of-school ritual — packing my ever-growing backpack, I began to feel nervous. This was the day I had been awaiting since kindergarten. I was even more scared than when I took the MCAT. This was my first day of medical school.

I could not believe I was actually embarking on the dream that every day I had mentally proclaimed. Having participated in a six-week pre-matriculation summer internship, taking introductory medical school coursework, I knew at least 59 other students. We had spent the summer in a program for entering students — practicing being “medical students,” but we hadn’t had to worry about the stress of real grades – yet.

It was during the first week of medical school that I realized I was going to have to change how I studied. Nothing can prepare you for medical school because you truly are trying to drink out of a fire hose. Studying seemed endless as knowledge felt like it went in one ear and out another. It was not until I began using the “Rule of 5” that I committed more knowledge to memory. I realized that I need to see the material in five different ways and at five different times, a method that takes time. But after realizing medical school is not like college, I decided that the Rule of 5 is a must.

To be specific, I had trouble understanding the concept of cell-mediated immunity in our immunology hybrid course. I read and read and read, but I could not understand this “simple” concept. It was not until I looked at the material in five different ways that the concept finally stuck. First I went to lecture, second I watched the lecture online while making notes, next I self-tested from my own notes. But it was not until I watched tutoring videos online and went to tutoring that I fully grasped the concept. When I was able to teach my friends and correctly answer practice questions, I knew that I knew the material.

Maybe I should change my Rule of 5, to a Rule of 5 minimum. This type of repetition helped me with a topic that I thought I would never comprehend. I realized it takes me a while to get some concepts, but I will only try harder. To be honest, I think I am still transitioning into medical school. There are still concepts I struggle with and I sometimes long to return to the good old college days. But as I sit here staring at my material, I remember I was chosen out of 4000 applicants, 1000 interviewees, and I am 1 of 231 students that my medical school believed would become a medical doctor. I have worked hard to get this far and I know working hard (and smart) will help me continue to succeed.

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